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November 29, 2011

As another academic term approaches I am required to select textbooks. This is always a dilemma because there are no good textbooks for most of the classes I teach. With the rise of digital media there is a consensus that the textbook, at least in its traditional form, will soon be obsolete. However, I find that the textbook still serves an important role in the classroom. To begin with, many students want a textbook. It seems to provide a sense of security, a fixed source of incorruptible knowledge. I have even had students withdraw from a class simply because there was no textbook for the class. Secondly, it provides context. The textbook includes a wider range of monuments than those presented in lectures, and importantly, monuments that were not selected by the professor. Finally, it presents an alternate interpretation of the material. It may include elements that are not addressed well in lectures or present scholarly opinions that are not shared by the professor. A common goal of higher education is to develop analytical and interpretive skills, and this is not accomplished through a monolithic approach. As a college student, I once took a course from a professor who had authored the textbook for the class. The class was miserable.

The main problem with the textbooks I employ is the avaricious textbook publishing industry. Most of these textbooks were written years ago by truly brilliant scholars, and in their original form they are pretty darned good. Over the years revisions were made resulting in new additions, but increasingly the new addition has been employed as a tool of planned obsolescence. It is now an industry standard to introduce a new addition of a textbook every other year, regardless of whether the text needs revision. The monuments included are switched back and forth: now this monument is removed and another put in its place, then in the next edition, the old monument is put back again and so on. The same technique is employed with dating: now this date is given based on a particular theory or dating system, then the original date is re-introduced in the next edition. The text itself is constantly “updated” with insignificant revisions. This results in two problems. The first is the introduction of material that might be new and different but has not been accepted by the mainstream academic community. Such material is often superfluous to the fundamental nature of the textbook and is better suited to an upper level seminar class. The other problem with such constant revision for the sake of revision is that the original, brilliantly composed text becomes virtually unreadable, especially for the non-specialist – the student for whom the textbook was created. The reason for this nonsense is greed: the new edition makes the old edition obsolete, forcing the student to purchase a new and outrageously expensive textbook, all the more expensive because it will have little resale value when the class is over and the next edition comes out. Eventually I will probably abandon the textbook but for now my policy has been to ignore the new edition. I specify that the student can use any edition of the textbook they can find, with the understanding that it may not exactly correlate with the material presented in class.

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